Making Certain It Goes On
Any accurate descriptions of Richard Hugo’s poetry risks sounding sentimental. Words such as “courage,” “compassion,” “love,” and, most frequently, “humanity” recur in commentary on Hugo, who died unexpectedly in 1982. Nevertheless, such words and such risk seem appropriate acknowledgment of Hugo’s willingness to affirm “simple” values in contexts, both social and aesthetic, in which they appeared unfashionable or archaic. Although Hugo received some recognition during the last decade of his life—he was named editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1977—he remained a somewhat anomalous figure in American poetry: a working-class Western populist in a world defined largely by Eastern academics. The difference in sensibility and voice becomes clear when one attempts to imagine the concluding lines of Hugo’s aptly titled “What Thou Lovest Well Remains American” in a poem by John Ashbery, Marvin Bell, or Charles Simic:You loved them well and they remain, still with nothing to do, no money and no will. Loved them, and the gray that was their disease you carry for extra food in case you’re stranded in some odd empty town and need hungry lovers for friends, and need feel you are welcome in the secret club they have formed.
Rarely engaging in the ironic deconstructions of the academic mainstream, Hugo identifies deeply with the members of the “secret club” that exists more in psychological than in social terms. Making Certain It Goes On testifies to his ongoing attempt to forge a social reality out of the psychological situation, to articulate the dispossession—social, psychological, sexual, economic—and to envision a community in which suffering elicits compassion rather than withdrawal.
This superbly assembled collection offers a comprehensive overview of Hugo’s development from a Northwestern regionalist fascinated by what Michael Allen, Hugo’s most sensitive critic, calls the “poetics of sound” to a major American poet basing his work on what Allen calls the “poetics of need.” Including all but two poems from the out-of-print collections A Run of Jacks (1961), Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965), and Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969), Making Certain It Goes On suggests the centrality of two early influences on Hugo’s development: Theodore Roethke, his mentor at the University of Washington, whose sense of verbal music had a profound impact on Hugo’s technique; and William Wordsworth, whose sense of the interaction of psyche and landscape helped provide a base for Hugo’s later, more Whitmanesque, explorations of community. While these volumes include several excellent poems (“At the Stilli’s Mouth,” “Road Ends at Tahola,” “Death of the Kapowsin Tavern,” “G.I. Graves in Tuscany”), they only intermittently intimate the power of the mature voice Hugo discovered in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973), What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), and 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977). Together these three volumes mark one of the most intensely creative periods of a single artist’s career in American literature; among the poems of lasting significance published during a five-year span are “A Map of Montana in Italy,” “To Die in Milltown,” “Helena, Where Homes Go Mad,” “Three Stops to Ten Sleep,” “Letter to Levertov from Butte,” “In Your Bad Dream,” and “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” a poem deserving recognition as one of the handful of truly great American lyrics. Supplemented by twenty-two new poems, several of which rank with Hugo’s best, White Center (1980) and The Right Madness on Skye (1980), which together extend Hugo’s vision beyond the Western American landscape without betraying its roots, make it clear that Hugo remained in full possession of his poetic power during his final years.
In addition to charting Hugo’s career, Making Certain It Goes On clarifies the concerns linking the stages of his development. The emphasis on specific landscapes—especially those around Seattle and Missoula where Hugo directed the University of Montana’s creative writing program—reflects both his love for his native region and the belief articulated in “A Snapshot of Uig in Montana” that “all cause is local, all effect.” Perceiving the feeling of dispossession, whatever its local roots, as a pervasive aspect of contemporary consciousness, Hugo consistently returned to the problem of how that shared experience of alienation could be transformed into the base for a true community. The resulting focus on the necessity for breaking through the silence separating individuals dictated Hugo’s choice of a voice accessible not only to academic readers but also to the lovers, bartenders, softball players, fishermen, writers, and waitresses populating his poems. Reflecting his rigorous commitment to exploration and ultimate acceptance of the full complexity of the self—which he sees as the necessary concomitant of meaningful participation in a community—Hugo frequently addressed the reader directly. His use of the second-person pronoun and definite articles contributes to the rhetorical specificity that combined with Hugo’s mastery of the spoken word to make him a brilliant...
(The entire section is 2178 words.)